Friday, March 25, 2011

Both sides to blame for coming teachers' strike

We're heading toward another teachers' strike in B.C., and parents and taxpayers should be angry at the government and the B.C. Teachers Federation.
The bargaining relationship - or non-bargaining relationship - between the union and the government is needlessly destructive.
Worse, the parties - the BCTF, the school employers bargaining association and government - seem incapable of taking the basic steps to fix it.
The current contract expires June 30. The government says teachers will be subject to same two-year compensation freeze as all other public sector unionized employees. That still leaves room to shuffle money around - higher salaries in return for reduced benefit costs, for example.
The union wants raises to bring salaries in line with Alberta and Ontario; by its assessment, that means a 12- to 20-per-cent wage increase. The BCTF also wants to be able to bargain workload issues like class sizes and the number of special needs students per class.
Bargaining always involves some posturing, positions taken just so they can be given up in a later show of purported good faith. But a bid for a 20 per cent pay increase in these economic times is just silly.
Especially because the only justification is that teachers somewhere else are getting more money.
There is no widespread teacher shortage in B.C. Would-be teachers continue to spend years as substitutes because the prospect of a full-time job is so alluring. University teaching programs are over-subscribed.
The union could argue that teaching is no longer attracting the best people, but it hasn't. (Pay ranges from about $42,000 for a beginning teacher with minimum qualifications to $80,000 for a teacher with years on the job and additional education. Holidays are very good; the work is important and challenging.)
Parents might as well begin thinking about how to occupy their children this fall during the ritual teachers' strike, followed by a back-to-work order and imposed settlement. Back-to-work legislation is inevitable in a strike. No government can allow long school closures; the NDP has legislated teachers back twice, the Liberals once.
This is all especially discouraging because the parties have been offered two different approaches that could avoid a pointless deadlock.
Vince Ready, asked to look into a 2006 dispute, recommended a new bargaining approach for this round.
Both parties should establish their objectives eight months before the contract expires, he wrote. That would have been last Sept. 30.
A facilitator/mediator - either agreed to by both parties, or appointed by the labour minister - should then immediately begin to meet with them in negotiating sessions, and where helpful make recommendations. A senior government representative should be at the table. And the parties should develop an agreed on statement of facts about the current situation - cost of compensation and benefits, recruitment issues and the rest.
Don Wright, who reviewed bargaining in 2004, recommended another approach. If negotiations failed, he said, a third party should conciliate. If that didn't work, union and employers would submit their best offers and the conciliator would pick one to form the new collective agreement.
Instead, the negotiations are heading down the same pointless path.
The union is far from alone in bearing responsibility. The Liberal government has been both thuggish and incompetent in dealing with the BCTF. It ripped up contracts, broke the law, failed to keep class sizes at reasonable levels and dumped its problems on school districts.
And despite a lot of talk about education, there has been no progress in improved results during the Liberal decade. Schools are good, but not improving.
It's not too late. The parties could adopt Ready's approach and start realistic talks. The government could stick with its no net pay increase mandate. The union could win a commitment to cut class sizes and provide more preparation time. They could bargain.
But in the meantime, if you have kids in school, plan for some down time next fall.
Footnote: Education Minister George Abbott was disarming at the recent BCTF convention and deserves full credit for showing up. And if real bargaining starts, he might wish to talk to Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, whose leadership campaign promises included more money for exceptional teachers.


Eleanor Gregory said...

You've figured it out. Wish the players would.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Paul, both sides are to blame in any strike (or lockout). However, as you point out, Wright and Ready both made recommendations on how to avoid a strike and those recommendations would have to be acted on by the government through legislation. The BCTF has no power to change the bargaining relationship only the government does. As a teacher, I would love to see some fair alternative to the adversarial bargaining system now in place. Possibly something similar to the way in which MLAs' salaries are determined.


Dave Killion said...

[Although the economic situation in Canada is not as harsh as that in the US, things are still tough, and I think the teachers are going to get less support than they hope for...]